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It Ain’t Exactly There

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Pragmatism and idealism in political life

By William Deresiewicz

January 27, 2013


 

I was at a Leonard Cohen concert on November 11, five days after the election. He played “Democracy,” and when he got to the line that gives the song its title—“Democracy is coming to the USA”—the whole arena roared. This was in Portland, Oregon, which went for Obama by something like 4 to 1. Idiots, I thought—he said “Democracy,” not “Democrats.” They’re not the same thing.

Are we still pretending that elections are the answer to our prayers? But we forget, in the mass emotion of a presidential campaign. I forgot four years ago. I hadn’t particularly liked Obama in the early primaries (I was an Edwards man, which shows how much I know). It was only when our beloved former president played the race card in South Carolina that I remembered how nefarious the Clintons are and went over to Obama as the lesser of two disappointments. (That’s right: I’m not aboard the Hillary train for 2016 yet, either.) But by the fall? I was totally on the team: hating on McCain, hating on the Republicans, extra double hating on Sarah Palin. I was so caught up in checking the polls, following the news, handicapping the odds, screaming at the television, so embroiled in the collective drama, the panic, catharsis, depression, elation—it really is like watching a football game—that I literally couldn’t remember what I didn’t like about the guy. I was just as sure as everybody else that the Millenium was right around the corner.

Well, not everybody. My leftier friends had been talking third party, as always. I voted for Nader, and I’m not going through that again. Still, I’m sympathetic to the dream. It’s not about logistics; it’s about ideals, about purity. Third parties are utopian projects—as is Occupy, the closest thing we have to a third party on the Left right now. By refusing to articulate demands or even positions, the movement takes the utopian impulse to its logical conclusion. Politics is dirty; it is compromise. Even if you don’t compromise with your opponents, you compromise with yourself—you compromise yourself. To put ideals into practice is to inevitably sully them. Third parties never win power in this country, which means they never have to do that. Occupy goes further: it doesn’t even put its ideals into words.

We are forever being lectured on the virtues of bipartisanship, pragmatism, compromise. There is a latent hostility to ideals in this country, just as there is to ideas. But compromise is not the answer, either. The dilemma of politics is that there is no answer. Purity, compromise; third party, major party; Nader, Obama: nothing gets you what you want. Look at the problem from any angle you choose, turn and turn it in your hands, and you will never make the parts line up.

Which brings us back to Leonard Cohen. “Democracy,” not “Democrats”: a vision, not a victory. “Democracy is coming to the USA”: what does the line even mean? The genius of the song is that we cannot say. By using the titular word so as to efface its normal meaning, Cohen brings us into contact with that state of utopian longing. “Democracy” becomes the name of a nameless desire. Democracy is coming. It’s coming. Here it comes.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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